“Land of the Free”
“There are some 12 million people living this way in the United States today – most with jobs, families, and roots in their communities, but without legal authorisation to be here. According to conventional wisdom, this constitutes a “crisis” in contemporary America, as illegal and unwanted foreigners take our jobs, burden our social welfare system, ruin our neighborhoods, and threaten the American way of life – a way of life established, of course, by previous generations of immigrants, many of them more desperate and destitute than those who are arriving on our shores today.”
Immigration policy has become a hot-button issue in the US presidential election campaign
James Ridgeway – The Guardian, January 31, 2008
Immigration is one of the most contentious and emotional issues in the United States today – an issue that cuts to the core of what it means to be an American, and of what kind of country America wants to become. In the 2008 presidential race, immigration policy will come to the fore as the political field narrows, and especially as the primary season gives way to the general election.
Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have already been jockeying for the growing Latino vote, all the while trying not to alienate others on this hot-button issue. On the Republican side, John McCain’s pragmatic and relatively humane position is under attack from Mitt Romney, who seeks to capitalize on the streak of Nativist, anti-immigrant feeling that has resurfaced in US politics in recent years. For millions of ordinary people in America’s cities and small towns, its factories and fields, these policies are matters of life and death, and how the immigration debate is resolved will in large part control their destinies.
In the back offices of St Brigid’s Roman Catholic church in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, a dozen people sit quietly in a waiting room, peering from time to time through an open door into a small study. There, behind a desk, sits Monsignor James Kelly, his white hair shooting out on all sides. Across from him is a thin, blonde woman from Guatemala. She has two manila envelopes stuffed with papers in front of her. She is crying. This tiny room is one of the frontlines in the battle over immigration, and these people are its soldiers – and its casualties.
This part of Bushwick is a poor area, a long subway ride from Manhattan’s towers of wealth and commerce. It is inhabited largely by Latinos, a good many of them from Ecuador, with a wide scattering from other lands. The church, which sits at the centre of the community, is crammed each Sunday with 1,200 or more people – adults, children, babies in carriages. At a time when many Catholic churches are seeing their parishioners dwindle, they fill the pews and clog every aisle, listening intently to Father Kelly saying mass in Spanish. The music is lively, with a trace of Pentecostal fervor to it, and there is a charismatic tone to the service. Every Sunday, this priest gives the mass twice in Spanish, once in English and once in Italian for the small number of elderly Italian Americans still living in the area. After mass, in the bitter cold outside, Father Kelly talks politics non-stop, pausing to bless an elderly woman, to reach inside a baby carriage and touch an infant’s forehead. He talks rapidly in English, then in Spanish, switching seamlessly back and forth.
Father Kelly is not your usual parish priest. He looks out for his parishioners’ souls, but also for their rights: In order to serve his flock, Kelly became a lawyer, and often argues cases before the courts. Every weekday morning, the church offices become a makeshift legal clinic, and fill with people embroiled in immigration matters. Kelly, who came to the US from Ireland many years ago, personally listens to each one, scurries across the room to a computer to look up details, thumbs through a law book for more information. All of it is free.
The priest wrestles with what to say to the blonde woman. Her husband is legal, but she hasn’t been here long and is illegal. There is a sense of quiet desperation about her. The priest puts his hands over his face. He doesn’t want to hurt her, but there is no remedy. Look, he says, if you stay two more years then we can do something. But in the meantime, stay quiet, keep going. The woman’s eyes keep welling with tears.
Kelly knows that this woman can be taken at any moment, as so many of his parishioners have been – picked up by immigration services while leaving their homes in the morning, going into a laundromat, dropping off their children at school. Anywhere, any time. A father can leave for work and simply fail to reappear; a mother can go out for groceries and never come back. Life, for them, is an ever-tightening trap. They live two families to a house, and now because of the recession, three families to a house. Many need to have several jobs to survive. But because they can’t get drivers’ licenses, they can’t go far to find work, to buy what they need at a discount store or to take their children to a park.
There are some 12 million people living this way in the United States today – most with jobs, families, and roots in their communities, but without legal authorisation to be here. According to conventional wisdom, this constitutes a “crisis” in contemporary America, as illegal and unwanted foreigners take our jobs, burden our social welfare system, ruin our neighborhoods, and threaten the American way of life – a way of life established, of course, by previous generations of immigrants, many of them more desperate and destitute than those who are arriving on our shores today.
In fact, new immigrants – both documented and undocumented – are a backbone of the US economy, providing vital labour, opening small businesses, reviving burned-out urban communities. According to the Immigration Policy Center, a roundup of studies shows that undocumented immigrants also contribute more to state and local governments in taxes than they use in services.
Americans are deeply divided on immigration policy, with 31% saying the illegal immigrants already here should be allowed to stay permanently, 31% saying they should be granted temporary status, and 30% saying they should be sent home.
Yet the anti-immigrant voices have been the loudest and most virulent and have often seized control of the debate. In the past two years, they’ve helped derail efforts to pass a bipartisan immigration reform bill, in part through a huge grassroots phone and email campaign, fueled by talk radio. Since then immigration has become the issue that no politicians want to touch, if they can help it.
On the other hand, the Latino vote has become a force to be reckoned with, especially within the Democratic party. According to the 2000 US census, 12.5% of Americans identified themselves as Hispanic. In the 2006 midterm elections, more than 70% of Hispanics voted for Democratic candidates, indicating a shift away from the GOP. And this year, Latino voters carry extra clout because of their strong representation in early primary states. For the first time, Democratic presidential candidates have launched Spanish websites and participated in a Spanish-language television debates.
Hillary Clinton, who leads the polls among Latino voters, has a mixed platform on immigration – generally pro-immigrant on the big issues, but not on some of the small ones that stand to have an impact on the lives of people like those who attend St Brigid’s.
Of the illegal immigrants already in the United States, she has said that it is “an unworkable scheme to try to deport 11 million people, which you have to have a police state to try to do,” although she still supports “strengthening our borders”. She favors “a path to earned citizenship for those who are here, working hard, paying taxes, respecting the law, and willing to meet a high bar for becoming a citizen”.
But she also stumbled over a question about whether she supported drivers’ licenses for illegal immigrants – at first seeming to support them, then backtracking. She has since come out against them.
This is one of several positions that now separate Clinton from Barack Obama, who has been campaigning hard for a larger share of Latino votes. His broad take on immigration policy is virtually identical to Clinton’s. But Obama – who likes to emphasise that he is the son of an immigrant from Kenya – supports issuing driver’s’ licenses to undocumented immigrants, a position that is highly unpopular outside of immigrant communities, but could make a huge difference to people living in places like Bushwick. He has also pledged to take up immigration reform during his first year in office, while Clinton has declined to make such a promise.
Clinton has also made some little-reported statements about the treatment of illegal immigrants who run afoul of the law. “Anybody who committed a crime in this country or in the country they came from has to be deported immediately, with no legal process. They are immediately gone,” she said at one campaign appearance, and at another, “You put them on a plane to wherever they came from”. Immigrant advocates like Father Kelly believe that such a policy leads to abuses and injustices, and that in America, everyone should be entitled to due process. “Horrible” is the way he characterized Hillary Clinton’s immigration position.
They also remember the harsh immigration legislation signed in 1996 by Bill Clinton, which demanded “automatic deportations” of legal and illegal immigrants convicted of felonies. A recent report from Human Rights Watch found that this law had led to the separation of 1.6 million families – something that runs directly counter to Hillary Clinton’s claim that all immigration policy must be committed to keeping families together. For Kelly, Ronald Reagan’s 1986 amnesty for illegal immigrants was a modest step forward, all but reversed in Bill Clinton’s draconian approach.
Immigrants might be nearly as well off with Republican John McCain, who with Ted Kennedy sponsored the immigration reform bill that both Clinton and Obama supported. In the past he has taken a punitive stance on extending some social services to illegal immigrants, and his hawkish rhetoric includes support for fences to seal off the borders. He supports a path to citizenship that might be somewhat steeper than the Democrats. But his rating of 18% from the anti-immigrant group US Border Patrol is just slightly higher than Clinton’s and Obama’s 8%.
McCain has criticized opponents who “don’t believe the American Dream is big enough to share anymore”. In one debate, he said of illegal immigrants, “We need to sit down as Americans and recognize these are God’s children as well. And they need some protection under the law; they need some of our love and compassion.” When virulent Nativist Tom Tancredo accused him of supporting a bilingual nation, McCain replied, “Well, first of all, muchas gracias,” and then advised Tancredo to “go to the Vietnam War Memorial and look at the names engraved in black granite. You’ll find a whole lot of Hispanic names. They must come into the country legally, but they have enriched our culture and our nation as every generation of immigrants before them.”
McCain has been pilloried by opponents, and many conservative commentators, for his “soft” position on immigration. Mitt Romney, ever the opportunist looking for a vulnerable target, has really come out swinging against immigration, attacking McCain for supporting “amnesty” for the lawbreaking illegals, going after Huckabee for giving them government handouts in Arkansas, and generally treating illegal immigration as some sort of scourge.
For Kelly, the candidates, Democrat and Republican alike, might as well be living on another planet, and have nothing to contribute to pressing situations like the one in Bushwick. Of them all, he sees some hope in McCain, but his parishioners, many of whom can’t vote, are sympathetic to Hillary, and would likely oppose Obama on strictly racial lines.
In St Brigid’s back room, a woman takes her seat before Father Kelly. “I am here,” she says, “because this is a good man.” She gestures to an elderly gentleman sitting next to her. He is Haitian, and has been in the United States since 1981. He should qualify for legal residence. Kelly finds his case. It is still open – pending for more than 20 years. Well, sighs Kelly, at least it’s still open – he has a chance.